Blue bus blues

Every person’s life is worthy of a book. I hope you are writing yours, or saving and collecting the material to one day write it.

I am in the midst of mine.

For those of you who just tuned in, this is the next installment of my memoirs currently in production. The previous installments are available on my web page I hope you find it interesting.

The book is titled, Live Long*, Learn a Little, Laugh a Lot.

The first part of this book’s title is, “Live Long *. The asterisk refers to the definition of “long;” not long in years necessarily, but in perspective. My experience has been that the longer the perspective the wiser the decision. Sometimes the elevation of our focus is also important.

“Your bus needs some mechanical repairs. The best thing would be to jack up the radiator cap and drive a new bus under it.”

Paraphrase from our mechanic.

As The Three D’s we played a number of instruments, we provided our own accompaniment, and we brought our own sound system, including two “Voice of the Theater” speakers that produced wonderful depth, range, and clarity. They were each about the size and seemed like the weight of a refrigerator. All this meant flying was usually not logistically or economically our means of travel.

We purchased a truck and camper for our first extended road trip, not elegant but it got us to the gigs. We did spin the tread off a rear tire now and then, and sometimes broke a rear wheel rim (See “Voice of the Theater” speakers.)

We soon upgraded to a more heavy duty truck and a bigger camper. We generally wore out a truck a year, and loaded the camper on to a new one.

One day I got a great idea. People have been institutionalized for ideas less crazy than this one. My stroke of genius (or maybe it was just a stroke) was that we should get a new customized bus like some big name stars traveled in. The idea sounded intriguing. The devil was in the details as they say. The details included that both “new” and “customized” were words out of our price range.

We decided to get a used bus and customize it ourselves; “ourselves” being Dick and me. Denis had gone into other business interests at this time, so Dick and I were performing as The D’s, Dick and Duane.

I didn’t think a yellow school bus with boarded windows was exactly the image we were looking for, so I shopped the want ads and found a used blue 29 foot highway bus that looked like it had potential. Potential for what, I forgot to ask.

We, of course took it for a test drive before we bought it.

“The linkage just needs a little adjustment,” one of the two owners told me as the transmission under us chattered like a giant blender grinding scrap metal.

I smiled and nodded. He knew he was lying, and so did I, but I had already figured we would have to repair or replace the engine and transmission. Dick agreed, or maybe didn’t disagree strong enough to curb my enthusiasm or mental instability.

“Once the engine and running gear are in good shape, we know we can at least get to our destination no matter what else might go wrong,” I said.

What else could go wrong? I will tell you. First take out a large, thick yellow pad, and number the lines from one to a hundred. On the top of this page write “Page 1.”

The bus apparently had previously been owned by Mr. Murphy originator of Murphy’s law, “If anything can go wrong it will.” Much could, and did.

We bought the bus. The owners required payment with a non revocable cashier’s check. As we ground the “linkage” into first gear and pulled away, I thought I saw the former owners hastily stuffing their belongings into a carpet bag and driving into the night.

As planned, our first destination was “the best garage in town,” according to a shaky source we shouldn’t have trusted. They overhauled the engine and transmission, and checked out everything else.

Our first road trip was about five miles. The engine coughed and sputtered. We returned, reloaded our stuff into our faithful truck and camper, and did the trip in that. O.K. even the great ships can have a little rough sailing on their maiden voyage. Maiden voyage plus one went a few miles farther; followed by hustle back, repack into the camper and floor board it to the next shows. Subsequent voyages went a bit farther before mechanical complications. We began to notice a pattern here. The bus never broke down until we turned the ignition key on and started the motor. An interesting correlation we should have paid more attention to. Instead we kept fixing things and getting farther from home before breakdown. Finally we crossed the point of no return. We had to fix it on the road and keep moving to make it to the next show.

Some fixes were fairly doable, a fan belt, a tire, a battery. But even the affordable fixes seemed to happen at night when the garages and auto parts stores were closed, and we were usually on a tight schedule.

A condensed list of our roadside repairs would include: The lights dying on the Columbia River interstate in Oregon on which there are few exits and fewer garages around midnight. I limped along until I lucked on to a garage with insomnia. The new battery we purchased died not long after starved of electricity that the busted alternator didn’t produce. On another tour to the Northwest a bad fuel pump stalled us halfway up the big climb out of Pendleton Oregon; another fuel problem in San Diego was fixed temporarily by a Good Samaritan sailor stationed nearby. This was a four-day gig. He came every day to our shows and spent his off-hours time in the rear engine compartment. Bless his heart. He got us back on the road.

On a combination performance and vacation trip to Southern Utah we had our families along. Dick was driving his own truck and camper, and I was behind the wheel of “Old Faithless.” The instruments were acting funny, so I stopped threw open the rear hatch and flames leaped out at me. I sprayed the fire extinguisher on it, tightened the fuel line on the carburetor, reloaded my shell shocked family, and on we went.

Between trips we took the bus to the garage who had worked it over for us. I emphasized to them again, “If you see any real or potential problems, fix them. The bus has to be dependable.” They accomplished that. We could always depend on the bus breaking down. We just didn’t know what, where, or when.

Come with us on a clear sunny afternoon in Kansas on Interstate 70 smooth and level as a pool table top I hear the crunch of heavy metal separating. The rig lurches to the right as the rear quarter sags. I muscle the steering wheel and hit the brakes. We arrive alive at the shoulder. Checking under I find the main leaf spring about six feet long has sprung its last spring. We are riding on the rear axel. It is, of course, Saturday coming on evening. The prospect of spending the night on the freeway shoulder is unappealing. I doubt the little towns along the way have a bus garage, and certainly not at this hour.

A kindly trucker pulls his eighteen wheeler over, hauls me into the next town where he happens to know some folks. He calls the owner of a hardware store who opens his place and allows me to shop. I walk the store buying anything that might possibly help us, a big jack, a long length of logging chain, the biggest clamps he has, a couple of tighteners used to cinch a load of logs on a truck. I have little idea what I’m going to create back at the bus, but with the prayer of the humble and naive I pay the hardware man, the trucker takes me back to the bus, but refuses to take any money. There is a special place in heaven for kindly truckers.

We use the jack, plus the one we carry with us to lift the spring off the axel. I wrap the chain around the frame and the broken spring like a splint, tighten it with the log locks, put a clamp any place I can find to fit one. Dick and I hold our breath, say a silent prayer apiece and slowly open the hydraulic jacks. The fix job groans, squeaks, and miraculously holds.

We slowly ease back on to the freeway and look for the first exit. We make it, but the town is so small and dark we take another prayerful breath go for the next exit, then for a bigger town, then checking our schedule and realizing we don’t have a lot of options, we head for Atlanta Georgia and a big show for the National Boy Scouts of America.

Periodically we stop and retighten the clamps, and measure how far the log clamp has bent since we saw it last. It is not healthy, but is holding. Winding through the Appalachian Mountains, we notice the speedometer has gone out again, but we’re not making enough speed to worry about. There is also a truck strike in this area, and some of the disgruntled drivers are taking sniper shots at every big rig on the road figuring it is piloted by a non union scab driver. We study the dark hills behind the headlights, but nobody tries to shoot us.

We make it to Atlanta. The spring splint is on its last legs, but holding when we pull into the convention center, unload our gear, and take our portable “breakdown” to a bus repair. The show goes well, and a couple of days later the garage has hammered out a new leaf spring, installed it, and we are on our way, hastily to Washington D.C. for our next show.

Dick is a good driver, so sitting in the back of the bus on one of the beds we have built. I am surprised to see the roadside highway markers brushing by my right ear, or so it seems to me. I figure Dick may be distracted trying to hurry. We get to Washington, hit the semi gridlock, and begin to crawl from one traffic light to the next. At one tight spot, a stretch limo pulls up next to us on the right. I assume it has somebody’s ambassador inside. The light changes. Dick is about to pull out past the limo. I holler. He stops, and we both see our back bumper is about to redesign the side of this elegant limo. We wait. The ambassador’s chauffer drives on unaware he came within millimeters of an international incident. Meanwhile cars honk behind us. We find the first turn off, pull over and take a closer look at our limo eating bus. The thing is dog legging. That is the front is in one lane, the back half way into the next lane right. Turns out there are two sets of holes in the frame to attach the rear springsOur Atlanta mechanic chose the wrong set.

After that discovery we stick to the right lane as much as possible preferring to wipe out a road sign if necessary instead of another car.

Flash back; to Oregon the night the alternator went out, and I spent a good part of the night feeling my way along the road like a blind man reading Braille. We bought a new battery. Somebody had replaced the original battery box with a home made iron container big as a medium sized casket. We filled it with the biggest battery we could find. We might blow every fuse in the bus, but we wanted enough juice to drive home on the starting motor if we had to. Figure of speech, of course, but that battery looked like something out of a Boeing 747, and cost about half as much. At least we wouldn’t have to worry about dead batteries again.

Flash forward; to Washington D.C. Flash in the back of the bus. No more forward. All systems dead. We coast to the side of the road. Fortunately we make it over a bridge spanning a chasm below us. Back to the back of the bus, the monster battery compartment has a problem. The exit hole for the battery cable was too high. It had rubbed the insulation off the cable, launched a lightening bolt, fried the battery, and sent us hiking for a replacement.

With the new battery, we say a prayer, take a deep breath, start up our rolling bag of tricks and head for Chicago. Except for looking like we are constantly making a left turn, and panicking a few thousand fellow drivers, the trip is uneventful. I pull into the parking lot where we are going to do the show, and push the brake pedal. Good sign, it doesn’t spew brown oil out of the power brake unit this time. The bus slows gently to a stop, mainly because at that moment the connecting rod to the accelerator pedal breaks. Later I fix it with a coat hanger wire as I remember.

There is more, but I’m sure you more than have the idea.

Fortunately in all these breakdowns we could coast to a stop. That is until rolling down from Snoqualmie Pass into Seattle. We almost relaxed. If the engine conked out this time we could at least coast to a good stopping place, maybe even into Seattle. Except to coast you need wheels. Dick driving glanced out the right rear view mirror. He saw our rear wheel was gaining on us. It was starting to go into business for itself. Half the tire was showing outside the wheel well, and heading for freedom in the forest. Dick brought us into a limping landing. Both of us knew this was the end of the line for this bus. If our equipment had not been inside and if we had had a stick of dynamite it would have been a spectacular finish. But the equipment was, and we didn’t have. What we did have was a show to give in a few hours.

From across the broad space between lanes a driver headed up the opposite direction saw us. We didn’t see him until he had gone up to the next exit, crossed over and came back, parked behind us and got out of his car.

Great, just what we needed, a scruffy long haired society drop out ready to steal whatever he could rip off our rig.

Wrong. He was, just what we needed, a scruffy long haired kid with a heart of gold. We gingerly babied our three wheeled bus out of the traffic, and loaded our basic necessities for a show into his car. He took us to our destination in Seattle, and wouldn’t take a penny for his trouble and expense. He wouldn’t even give us his name. There is a special place in heaven for scruffy kids with hearts of gold.

Next day we found out there are a slew of good Samaritans in Seattle; including the local folk who took us back to our junk bus, and a young man who knew things about big rigs that they don’t teach you in mechanic school. I said to him, “I don’t want to ask you to work on Sunday. We’ll go at it tomorrow.”

He said, “Doesn’t bother me. I’m Seventh Day Adventist.”

He combed the forest for semi abandoned trucks he knew about. Found and pulled off what he needed, got them for a bargain price, adjusted his fees to our modest means, and had us on the road the next day.

We made it home, parked the bus, advertised and sold it for something close to the Blue Book junk yard price to a man who said, “Looks like it needs a little work. That’s fine. I like to fix things.”

I said, “This is your baby. You’ll love it.”

In its own way, that perverse mechanical hypochondriac was a stunning success. It taught us auto mechanics, patience, how to make friends out of strangers by the road side. It even enlarged our vocabulary somewhat, and we met some mighty fine folks along the way. And it cured us forever of wanting to be bus drivers.

Your next installment is: Songs and scenes in the theaters of the mind

Everybody I know is busy, including me. Where are those golden years I was planning on of sitting on the back porch picking my guitar? So I will send just one little part of the book at a time. You can give it a quick read and tell me what you think if you would like.

I’ve slimmed that process down to two questions, and four strokes on the key board (six if you count “Reply” and “Send.”)

The questions are these:“A” How much did you enjoy this?“B” How much do you think a person who doesn’t know Duane Hiatt would enjoy this?

The rating is:1. Glanced at it, printed it out and lined the bottom of the bird cage with it.2. Sped-read it and filed it with my tax return receipts3. Thought it was about as interesting as a well written obituary4. Could have put it down, but didn’t want to5. Couldn’t put it down. Put it in a magnetic frame and stuck it onto the fridge door

So your response would perhaps be A-4, B-3, (Or maybe A-5, B-5, I’m expecting a minimum number of those.)

Also feel free to add comments if you like.

Also, also, feel free to forward this material to anyone you want to.